#213: How to research an article (without killing your productivity)


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Researching an article is so frustrating because it's time-consuming

But there are ways to beat the pressure—and the pain. Believe it or not, there are ways to be productive with zero last minute research. This episode shows you how to make advance research work for you, as well as in situations where you have no research at all. Sounds too good to be true? Well, listen to the episode.

Click here to read online: How to research an article (without killing your productivity)


Let's assume you have guests coming over in 20 minutes

And you've promised them your special Indian onion salad. What ingredients do you need? Let's see:

  • 3 onions.
  • 1/3 cucumber.
  • 2 tomatoes.
  • A handful of coriander leaves.
  • 1 teaspoon of crushed methi leaves (fenugreek leaves)
  • 1 slice of fresh lemon.
Ready to go?

Of course not. You might have the onions, but there's no cucumber in sight. You're pretty sure you don't have coriander or fenugreek leaves, though you may (or may not) have a lemon. What should you do at this point?

The slightly obvious answer is you have to scurry off to the veggie market to get all your ingredients, which means your guests are going to going to be ringing the doorbell soon—and you're completely frazzled.

This “frazzled” feeling is what most of us go through when we're dealing with research for an article. We know our topic moderately well, and we're almost ready to write. However, when we get started, we suddenly feel we need more substance to our writing. That's when we scramble to find research, and it's already too late.

Which is why this article covers three core points about research:

—Why we tend to depend on research —Why advance research is more valuable than you'd expect —How to operate when you have no research at all

1) Let's start with the first point: the dependence on research

I remember one of the earliest articles I wrote about the topic of uniqueness. I'd read a book called “Positioning” by Al Ries and Jack Trout, which was filled with great examples. Notice what I just wrote?

It wasn't the Internet I was browsing through. It was just a book filled with a fixed number of pages and a finite number of examples. Even so, the article had so many case studies, and so many points on positioning, that I was quickly lost. An article that should have taken me a few hours took over three days, and it was primarily because of the dependence on research.

The reason why we depend on research so much is because we feel a little intimidated by the depth of our knowledge.

We rightly assume that others have written about the topic in a fair bit of detail and we can use the details to bolster the authenticity of our article. And especially when we're starting out, we tend to have a sort of impostor syndrome, where we feel others know a lot more.

Which is why we end up researching our facts on the Internet, only to end up with frustrating dead ends and little to show for all our hard work. If there's any good news, it's that almost all of us start our writing journey down this painful path only to find there's a slightly better way.

It's called research in advance, and it's important for reasons more valuable than you'd imagine. So let's hop along to our second point in this article, shall we?

2) Why is it that advance research matters so much?

Two of my favourite activities are drawing and drinking coffee. Which is why I head over to a cafe in the neighbourhood. I get myself my cup of flat white, perch myself near the huge glass window and watch people go by. And then I start to sketch.

However, if you were to look into a folder in my iPad, you'd find I don't depend solely on my memory. I've drawn and sketched for close to 40 years now, but I still follow keep references. And if you looked at my reference folder on my iPad you'd find a massive reservoir of photos and illustrations—over 835 stored at this point.

The reason for this collection is merely a factor of speed

If the reference picture has already been sourced out in advance, I don't have to scramble for it on the Internet. And that ability to instantly pull up a reference is the prime reason for researching in advance.

Even with the reference right before you, it's still going to take time and energy. But at least you're not scampering down seventeen thousand rabbit holes on the Internet. You still feel the nervous energy of someone who's got to write an entire article, but at least you're partly in control.

And whether it's an onion salad or drawing Pinocchio, having the ingredients in place is already a huge energy saver.

However, there are other hidden aspects of advance research that most of us tend to discount

The first reason is just the percolation of the idea. When we are prepared, our mind is not only calmer, but it's also able to spend that extra energy looking to enhance or improve the idea.

With the ingredients of the onion salad in place, we can decide to experiment with a touch of balsamic vinegar. It might not fall in line with a traditional Indian salad, but this preparation gives us the chance to be more than ourselves. It allows time for creative tinkering.

When I have the picture of Pinocchio in my folder, that's a considerable amount of energy I don't need to summon. I can start thinking of nose rings on Pinocchio's nose. And what would happen if the nose went back to its standard size? All of these thoughts bubble up and create a pot of sudden and unexpected creativity.

To help this creativity have a chance to wake up, most research needs to be done and stored in advance

And it's why I use a program called Evernote. With Evernote, I can take a photo, screenshot or text and store it in the program itself. Evernote and it will instantly pull up the reference as long as I can remember a single word.

Therefore if I read some research on how Pinocchio died a gruesome death and was hanged, I can store that and pull that up, on demand, six months or six years from now. That story won't exactly get whisked away from my subconsciousness.

It will stay there and will be likely to get better over time. When I'm ready to use the research, I'll not only be able to pull up all the details that I require in a matter of seconds, but my brain will have been working on it, waiting for the exact moment to use the story.

And you know this concept to be true because you've experienced it

It's almost like arriving at that airport at 4 am and finding a chauffeur standing with a placard and your name on it. That planning enables you to get to the hotel, unpack and fall back into bed. The opposite feeling is one of having to catch a bus, drag your suitcases for three blocks only to find the hotel is fully booked.

At some point or the other, you and I are going to need the research.

We may need it for our stories, to use as examples or case studies or simply to give our articles a nice dose of much-needed iron. Even so, there are times when you don't have time for all of this elaborate storage method in Evernote.

Or you have to crank out something in a hurry. What should you do then? This takes us to the third part of our article: how to write when you have no research?

3) What should you do when you have no research in place?

Let's just step back one tiny bit and examine the situation. We have no research; we want to write an article. But do we know what's the main feature of an article? The article is built up structure and flow; there's drama, and there is also information.

But all of that is useless without the most vital element of all. That element is called “enthusiasm”.

Without an enthusiastic creator, a cartoon looks lifeless, salads seem to wilt, and articles end up being just an endless drone of words. And some days you have no energy to write, let alone research. But you always have enough energy to disagree, don't you?

Disagreement is the spark that enables you to write without research

Let's say you're writing an article about “how to get new clients”. Look for an article that's already about “getting new clients”. Do you agree with all the methods? Do you nod your head sagely at all the angles of their argument? Of course, you don't.

We all have different ways of getting the same thing done. I might add fenugreek leaves to my salad, but you might turn up your nose at it and suggest something else. The moment you get into a “disagreeable mood”, you're officially a critic.

Which is precisely the moment to write an article about the subject matter

Remember that at this point we don't have any research, are feeling reasonably deflated and yet we can easily pick holes in the other person's argument because of one solid reason. We already have more knowledge than we perceive.

We may (or may not) see ourselves as beginners, but when writing the article, we may feel out of depth. Reading the other person's article gets us to realise that we have a totally different angle on several, if not all the points. Once that fire has been lit, it's relatively easy to continue to write from our reservoir of knowledge. And that's just one way to go about things when you don't have the research.

The other way is to talk about your own experience

Let's say I talk about how we run our membership site at 5000bc. Let's say our three core benchmarks are:

  1. A precise onboarding system
  2. Answering every marketing or technical question by clients
  3. Creating content that's not necessarily found on the Internet.
Let's just assume those are the three benchmarks that help us run 5000bc

Do you see any problem with those benchmarks at all? No, of course not, because they're our benchmarks. We can then go on to explain every one of those three in great detail and get an absolute cracker of an article as a result.

But wait, where's the research?

The reason we didn't need an iota of research is because we didn't need an iota of research. It's our story, and we'll tell it like we want to. Which is a method you've got to use as well. Perhaps you make a homemade shampoo, and you follow some steps.

Who cares if your steps differ entirely from the rest of the world? Maybe you are a copywriter, and you develop a sales page system where you start from the bottom up, instead of from the headline down. Well, go for it. It's your method, your system, your way of life. You don't need any fancy time-wasting, cell-crunching research to back it up.

And this kind of personal experience is what a lot of writers tend to use on a regular basis and for good reasons too.

Just finding case studies and exciting stories to fit your article is taxing enough

Case studies, examples, stories—all of these are less about the concept of research, and instead, is the “entertainment” factor in your article. When this article briefly swung towards the apparent hanging of Pinocchio, your curiosity was instantly activated. The story of Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio would have mead a great example in an article.

These stories and examples provide an excellent garnish for your article, and it's already a fair bit of work. Which is why you may as well write more articles based on what you know, or what you disagree with.

Even if the article were to be devoid of all of this additional entertainment, it would still be fascinating to the reader, because of the enthusiasm you're bringing to the piece.

Note for example this article is almost free of any research

There was this little dart back and forth to pick up the name of the author of Pinocchio, which is when I ran into the whole hanging story. That tiny little nugget got stored away in Evernote for another day, while I slid back into finishing this article. And all of this was achieved with no real need for fancy research.

The reality is you can write hundreds of articles without research

It isn't to suggest you don't store exciting facts and case studies. It's just that most of our lives are filled with activities, and we don't have the time to go scuttling around in search of an exact fit to our articles.

In most cases, if you've done the prep work, you'll have a ton of examples, but even if you haven't, a touch of disagreement or giving an insight into your methods, is enough.

And now that we're done with this article on research, I can go back to my onion salad.

Has anyone seen the fenugreek leaves yet?

Next Step: How To Double Your Writing Speed (And Overcome The Outline-Barrier)

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